Oregon Supreme Court Rules for Governor in Climate Change Suit

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gov. Kate Brown on a lawsuit in which two young plaintiffs alleged the state did not address the growing threats caused from climate change.  

The plaintiffs, Ollie Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana, were minors when they filed the case in the Lane County Circuit courts in 2011. The lawsuit named Brown as the defendant, claiming the state had a duty to protect natural resources and that it had failed to do so under her leadership. 

Hinging on the interpretation of an idea called the public trust doctrine, lawyers for the case argued in 2019 in front of the state Supreme Court. This past Thursday it affirmed a lower court’s ruling and returned the case to circuit court. 

The public trust doctrine dates back to the Byzantine empire, where the beach up to the high tide line couldn’t be privately owned. The United States adopted the idea as common law, reaffirming it in Supreme Court rulings back to the 1800s.  

The lawyer representing Chernaik and JulianaCourtney Johnson, argued in the lawsuit that the state has a responsibility to protect resources that fall under the public trust doctrine, including, “the state’s atmosphere as well as the water, land, fishery and wildlife resources from the impacts of climate change. 

Brown said she agrees with the plaintiffs on the principles of the case.  

“As I have said throughout this legal process, I agree with the plaintiffs, and other young people across Oregon and the world, when they say there is an urgent need for climate action,” Brown said in a statement. “To all of Oregon’s young people: If you’re frustrated by the speed at which your government is addressing the most urgent crisis of this generation and the next, know that I am too. There is a place where Oregonians can make their voices heard –– the ballot box.” 

Chief Justice Martha Walters dissented from the majority opinion, writing that the courts “must not shrink from their obligation to enforce the rights of all persons to use and enjoy our invaluable public trust resources.” 

“How best to address climate change is a daunting question with which the legislative and executive branches of our state government must grapple,” Walters wrote. “But that does not relieve our branch of its obligation to determine what the law requires.” 

Juliana was the lead plaintiff in a similar lawsuit against the U.S. 

By: Hannah Ramsey